The Gypsies of Austen’s Emma (1816)

Throughout the six volumes that comprise the canonical masterworks of Jane Austen, so much creative effort is devoted to the gentry classes that when we encounter something as out of place as a roving band of gypsies, it becomes quite the source for a moment of fascination. The scene comes to us from Emma, Book III, Chapter III, where the young Harriet Smith and her friend Miss Bickerton encounter a “party of gipsies,” and there was a child “who came towards them to beg.” Miss Bickerton reacts by screaming and running away, leaving Harriet to fend for herself. Harriet was approached by more children, a grown woman and a large boy, but after giving them money, the situation becomes terrifying considering that she was then “surrounded by the whole gang, [who are] demanding more.” By the time the text refers to these gypsies as “such a set of people in the neighbourhood,” the critical reader realizes that we are dealing with the “other” in ways that don’t get any more “other” than that.

As is standard for an Austen novel, people are divided into social strata; the plot itself is hinged on the notion that Harriet should not marry a lowly farmer. We’re to understand that Emma and her father are at the top of the novel’s hierarchy, with George Knightley considered an equal; the Eltons, the Westons, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are below them; mother and daughter Bates are situated down low. People below the Bates don’t even get a name; Emma pays a “charitable visit” to a “poor sick family” that lives in a “detached cottage.” At the very bottom, the gypsies are not only nameless, they’re barely human; they are “trampers…all clamorous, and impertinent in look…loud and insolent.” That Miss Bickerton screams at the sight of the gypsy child suggests that we’re dealing with some sort of monster species.

Emma’s charitable visit serves to foreshadow the gypsies as the “other.” When she is with Harriet during the visit, she mentions the act of giving from her “purse,” which sets a distinction to be made between the types of people who are eligible to receive donations. The gypsies are keenly aware of this in that the need to force money out of people to survive has become a required portion of their behavior. In real life, the gypsies of England are known as Romanichal (Romani), and as Austen describes, they are quite clearly the victims of xenophobia.

Geraldine Chaplin portrays the gypsy fortune teller Maleva in the remake of The Wolfman (2010).

Encyclopedic sources have the Romanichal arriving in England around the 15th Century, much to the dismay of Henry VIII. His Egyptians Act (1530) “banned Romanies from entering the country and required those living in the country to leave within 16 days. Failure to do so could result in confiscation of property, imprisonment and deportation. During the reign of Mary I the act was amended with the Egyptians Act (1554), which removed the threat of punishment to Romanies if they abandoned their ‘naughty, idle and ungodly life and company’ and adopted a settled lifestyle, but on the other hand increased the penalty for noncompliance to death” (Source).

During Austen’s time, laws against the Romani had been eased, but as Susannah Fullerton points out, life was obviously still a struggle; people were simply not ready to accept the Romani as citizens of the country, to the extent that to be seen with them, or even conversing with them, meant consequences for an English subject. Miss Bickerton’s fear of the Romani child may very well be related to a fear of these consequences and not of the child or the group itself. Fullerton describes a situation in which, “In 1782 a fourteen-year-old girl, desperately protesting her innocence, was hanged for being found in the company of gypsies” (Source). This of course doesn’t change the fact that such consequences are based on a fundamental un-acceptance of the “other.” Non-Romani people such as Emma’s poor family are entitled to charitable acts, but the Romani are despised because of the difference that defines them.

Actual Romani explain to Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) the supernatural dangers of the Borgo Pass in Nosferatu (1979).

As it turns out, scholarly research, as well as a basic hunch of humane thought, brings to light the nature of the Romani, which tends to make the people who look down on them look like the monsters. As David Cressy tells us, “Despite accusations of idleness and fecklessness, they [the Romani] were mostly busy. Far from being mindless wanderers, they were purposeful travellers who filled a niche in the economy of itinerancy. The men handled logistics, and dealt in animals and games of chance, while Gypsy women earned pennies from fortune-telling. Common folk were said to have flocked to them, when they arrived in their midst, though local authorities disapproved of their predations. Even in gaol, one Jacobean writer reported, certain Gypsies contrived to exploit ‘the simplicity of many of the townsmen’s wives, daughters and servants’ with fraudulent divinations. People allegedly ‘wondered at them, and gave them money, sent them meat every day to dinner and supper, saying it was pity such skillful people as they should not be provided for’ – a generosity not extended to common vagrants. Unlike other itinerants and the ordinary roving poor, the Gypsies owned horses, baggage, and supplies of goods and money, and were rarely associated with begging. If it is true that Gypsies sometimes picked pockets, then that was work too, as some modern Roma attest” (Source).

Of course, this knowledge has been gathered and presented to us in a modern sense, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that Austen was out to thoroughly bash gypsies. They’re hardly the subject of focus. She knew of their existence and as a storyteller, she makes use of them both as a plot point — the means by which Emma contrives another scheme for match-making — and as a kind of meta-textual reference, such that the story of the gypsies becomes a source of exhilaration for Emma’s nephews, who continuously seek to be told of the tale of Harriet and the gypsies, “tenaciously setting her right if she varied in the slightest particular from the original recital.” Austen describes later on a state of peskiness in which some poultry-yards in Emma’s neighborhood were pilfered (hinted to be the work of gypsies), and so it adds to the character of her novel, such a valuable resource for what life was like during the late-18th-Century.

To be sure, the latest Hollywood rendition of Jane Austen’s Emma is in theaters now, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the beloved Emma herself.

Reading The Great Chain of Being

In the back of my copy of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817), the study questions do more than draw interest to the text, they draw attention to the social landscape of the day. One question asks, “Does Jane Austen ridicule a particular set of people with her wit?” The question is alarming because it situates judgment on the authoress herself, painting her with a bit of conceit.

In our modern age, creative writers are urged to “show” their stories scene after scene, which is a means to allow readers to arrive at their own conclusions concerning subtext. In Austen’s day, marked rules and distinctions between showing and telling did not exist, where it was for our lady genius in her free form prose to stumble upon what literary theorists know as “free indirect discourse,” a form of literary expression that in essence allows readers to know what a character is thinking.

The result of this form bleeds into our initiating question, that people stand be ridiculed as Austen’s story unfolds. We know what people are thinking about others because Austen spells it out. But we can’t judge her for how she sounds in her writing, because the question is as much a historical inquiry as it is a textual study. Austen’s thoughts are a reflection of an English paradigm stretching centuries into the past, in which her psyche functions at the mercy of that very paradigm.

Just before the long eighteenth century, the vestiges of Feudalism lingered with great tenacity. Feudal social structures are likened unto the Great Chain of Being, that unbreakable hierarchy in which all creatures large and small fit in at some level. And I mean UNBREAKABLE! God himself sits at the very top of this hierarchy, and from this point comes the monarchy and nobility, followed by the peerage and on down into the peasant classes and so forth. Wherever a person was born within this Great Chain of Being, society at the time recognized the position as permanent. In 1563 The Statute of Apprentices embodied this concept, “for it assumed the moral obligation of all men to work, the existence of divinely ordered social distinctions, and the need for the state to define and control all occupations in terms of their utility to society” (Source). A peasant couldn’t dream of becoming a baron and a baron wouldn’t think of becoming king unless certain rare conditions were to arise. This understanding of the structure was embedded so deeply that to imagine life otherwise was incomprehensible.

The Great Chain of Being

The Great Chain of Being can be understood even better when we observe the moment in time when it suffered the rudiments of disruption. London trade exploded into the open during the early 1700s, and a new class of people came into being that had people scratching their heads. A person could develop a business based on the sale of goods and become successful. Social mobility had arrived. The middle-class had been created, destabilizing that Great Chain of Being.

Yet the social consciousness created by the Great Chain of Being did not dissipate so easily. Social mobilization was like a shock wave of which its effects took time to deal with. In Austen’s work the aftershocks of this disruption pop up throughout her text like Freudian slips, yet they are to the contemporary reader, a part of fleshing out this glacial force of change.

For example, Sir Walter has strong opinions about social mobility via time served at sea:

— “Yes; it [The English Navy] is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of” (Austen 19).

Obscure birth? His use of the word “undue” comes off as harsh even for the day, and the element of social mobility disrupting the Great Chain of Being is well-defined in the insistence that it could never be “dreamt of.” As modern readers we might ask: Why shouldn’t someone of obscure birth be allowed the chance to come into their own?

The Great Chain of Being is subject to dismantling by Captain Wentworth’s intention to succeed, so as to raise his station in life. This longing is pivotal to the plot in that he had lost his romantic chance with Anne because of his lower level in the social hierarchy:

— “But he was confident that he should soon be rich: full of life and ardour, he knew that he should soon have a ship, and soon be on a station that would lead to everything he wanted” (26).

Personalities and character defects are no match for status when we consider the power Miss Carteret has over her peers in light of her natural place in the Great Chain of Being:

— “Miss Carteret, with still less to say, was so plain and so awkward, that she would never have been tolerated in Camden Place but for her birth” (143).

Birthright has been cemented deeply in the social consciousness so that it is like pulling teeth trying to remove it from the authoress’s mind.

— “But Mary did not give into it very graciously, whether from not considering Captain Benwick entitled by birth and situation to be in love with an Elliot” (124-25).

Even when specific examples fall to the wayside and subtle everyday language is applied do we find the gradation functioning within Austen’s psyche, found in her application of the word “superiority” (emphasis mine).

— “…save as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments” (40).

Even inanimate objects are assigned a measure of station in the Great Chain of Being:

— “Their house was undoubtedly the best in Camden Place; their drawing-rooms had many decided advantages over all the others which they had either seen or heard of, and the superiority was not less in the style of the fitting-up, or the taste of the furniture” (131).

In the modern age we don’t go around commenting about the life-cards a person has been dealt, not in the ridiculing sense we hope. In movies sometimes we will find politicians insisting to their children who will marry who, as they revel in the glee of their lack of poverty. And so far as we know, those who’ve been divined to claim standing within that fabled “one percent” probably have thoughts and they make comments about who is who in this world, and where they stand in relation to them. As for the potential of Austen’s work to sound as though she is ridiculing others, at the very least, and from her perspective, her work serves to suggest to the reading public at the time, and in our modern era, that a person does not necessarily have to remain in the situation into which they were born. As Captain Wentworth’s ambitions suggest: How much are you willing to work for a better life?

Serfs locked into the Great Chain of Being by their overlord.


Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 1817. Barnes & Noble, Inc, 2003.


Jane Austen’s Emma takes place in England during the early 19th Century. The story is about a young woman whose mother has died and was therefore raised by an in-home educator/caretaker, a job description known as a governess. Her father still lives, but he’s exceptionally older than she is, resulting in a tight bond that develops between Emma and her caretaker. Emma has a sister who was married off, so when the time comes for the governess Miss Taylor to vacate the premises, who has married herself to become Mrs. Weston, Emma is faced with a crisis of identity: the specter of who or what she should be or become essentially lurks within her psyche. She is saddened by the loss of her governess, but she adapts and she carries on, but further than this, she becomes enraptured in the process of retaining her sanity by involving herself in the love life of another, younger woman she has been introduced to.

Elements of English life are detailed in this book of mild comic relief, and fashionable events and repartee unfold on a page to page basis where the characters reveal themselves through the words that they say to each other. That little description is given to the world around and the landscape abroad, and yet the reader is filled with a rather nourishing and complete picture of the world in which Emma voyages through the process of self-discovery, is testament to the genius of Jane Austen’s ability to tell a story through the device that is the novel.